Picture This: Space and Time in Lisa Robertson’s “Utopia/”
By Davidson, Ian
This essay examines relationships between space and time in Lisa Robertson’s poem “Utopia/,” demonstrating connections between Robertson’s poetics and aspects of spatial theory, and the ways in which her concerns with architectural form, urban space, “ornament,” style, and surface can inform readings of her work. In her poem “Utopia/,” from her 2004 book, Rousseau’s Boat, Lisa Robertson uses a time of day or year to begin each stanza or section of the poem. “Utopia/” begins “In the spring of 1979,” while in the second stanza, “The season called November addresses speech to us” (21). In the third stanza it is “At about midnight in autumn.” The times are neither consecutive nor consistent; some give years, others times of the year, seasons, or times of day. Although each “time” seems to be the beginning of a narrative, the individual sections do not complete the narrative. Neither do the sections develop any kind of narrative continuity, moving from “spring,” to “autumn,” to “four in the morning” (22), “early June” (23), and “Saturday evening” (24). The blank line before each “time” also marks them out visually; they can be quickly identified on the page. While not entirely consistent, the use of these times as an apparent structuring device does develop both visual and aural patterning. This patterning is, however, more within an aesthetics of coincidence and contiguity, that things are next to each other because they happen to be so, rather than the temporal sequencing of a narrative that is held teasingly just out of arm’s length; as Joshua Clover comments on the sense of narrative continuity in “Utopia/” in his essay on Robertson, “you’ll trust it continues. Except it doesn’t, exactly” (77).
Each section or stanza of the poem is made up of a number of short sentences, combining abstract thought and emotion with concrete detail and description. Within the sections, the sentences seem to stand in a relationship to each other that is synchronous, although, of course, one does come after another in the order of the page, and paratactic-there is little sense of continuity or sequence or any hierarchical relationships between the different elements of the poem. The poem continually defers meaning, promising but never quite delivering. Yet the poetry does develop the sense of a life that constructs and is constructed through the poem, although a life from the perspective of an “I” that is shifting and fluid. Robertson claims to want to go beyond the collagist and paratactic structures of much experimental writing and says of the poem in an interview in 2005, “I wanted no sense of development in a narrative or psychological sense, and yet I wanted to build connections in a way that the completely paratactic approach of the ‘new sentence’ sequence didn’t quite seem to carry” (Fierle-Hedrick 52).
As there are hints of a life, there are also glimpses of locations and surroundings. As soon as a “scene” begins to develop recognizable features, however, the poem moves on or changes perspective, often seeming to keep the reader between places and maintaining them in a state of disorientation or dislocation. This is partially explained by the source of the material for the poems in Rousseau’s Boat, which comes, according to Robertson, from “culling from a huge stack of my old notebooks” (Fierle-Hedrick 51). Describing the process of gathering together the material and writing “Utopia/,” Robertson says: “I did a second cull from the same notebooks-I transcribed each sentence that seemed to describe a place or site. I wanted to somehow situate or spatially contextualise the first person of ‘Face/’” (52). Robertson’s account of the process of construction of the poem simultaneously clarifies and obscures. Her earlier description of the process of writing “Face/,” another long poem in Rousseau’s Boat, where she “reread maybe 15 years of notebooks and transcribed each first person sentence” is more helpful, particularly in the light of her desire to “construct an autobiographical text that remained impersonal, yet which would hold together as its own subject” (51). The first problem with “Utopia/” is that many of the sentences, despite the spatial promise of the title and Robertson’s description of the process, do not seem to “describe a place or site.”Take one example,”Soft and mild emotions were interrupted by emotions that were eager, hurrying, impetuous” (Rousseau’s 23). Or another, “I took literally everything that transpired” (29). The concept, of constructing a collage of statements related to actual places or spatial situations, certainly does not explain the poem in its entirety, and in many ways makes it more difficult to understand as I try to fit each line into the overall idea. The “concept” also further breaks up any potential narrative, however disrupted the narrative hinted at through the statements locating the poem in particular times may already be.
Robertson continues in the interview to explain that the “time indicators” were “copied from our shelves of novels. Usually the first sentence or two of a novel gives a time frame. These were them” (Fierle-Hedrick 52). In the same way that her earlier poem sequence, The Weather, a sequence also framed by time in its imitation of the diary format, is constructed from statements made about the weather by other authors, rather than the result of observation, the “time indicators” in this more autobiographical poem are similarly lifted from a collection of other texts. If, as Robertson says of The Weather, she was “approaching the idea of weather via the representation of weather” (41), in “Utopia/” she seems to be approaching the idea of time via representations of time. The final poem in Rousseau’s Boat is entitled “This is the beginning of Utopia / Its material is time” (37-39). A utopia is a “never never land”; it has no time, so how can its material be time? It is outside history, and particularly the deterministic explanations of historical materialism. In some ways, the passage of time is dystopic, and the process whereby age, decay, and change enters the world. Robertson also claims in the interview that the material of the poem is space, not time, and constructed from descriptions of places. Why, then, would Robertson claim that the material of the beginning of Utopia is time? If time enters a utopia, then that is the beginning of the end.
The answer to this question is not a simple one and lies in Robertson’s conceptualizations of space and place, of time and history, of her ideas of style and surface and their relationship to gender in poetic practice. Robertson draws on ideas from the “spatial turn” in social and cultural theory in her poetic processes (although not uncritically), and her strong interest in the spatial ideas of architecture, urban space, and design relate to her ideas of poetic form. I argue that an emphasis on the “spatial” can support readings of her work. I also argue that the structuralist formations of the spatial in language and other experimental writing, those of the “new sentence” for example, proved inadequate for Robertson’s needs, and that she develops a poetics that integrates ideas of space and time in Rousseau’s Boat within a trajectory from the eighteenth century to the present (although earlier work in Xeclogue and her interest in the pastoral and Virgil easily pre-date that). Therefore, despite her strong connections with the “Kootenay School of Writing,” an artist-run collective based in Vancouver with a commitment to experimental writing and links to US-based language writing, she steps outside of, and implicitly critiques, the twentieth-century “Pound” tradition, and bases her critique on both aesthetic and gender grounds. I will return to this later in the essay, but my argument is that Robertson, in Rousseau’s Boat and in “Utopia/” in particular, develops a poetry that combines ideas of times and of spaces in radical formations that go beyond many of the more collagist formations of paratactic experimentation. Through building “Utopia/ ” out of a combination of personal stored memory (from her own notebooks) and found material in the novels, she is creating a poetic structure out of material that is in a complex set of relationships with time and space.
There are three ways in which the material of “Utopia/” is “time.” The first is that the poem is constructed out of notebooks that record Robertson’s personal history. The “material” of the poem, therefore, relates to particular times in Robertson’s life. The second is that, within a constructivist aesthetic, once the time indicators in the poem are removed from the original context of the novels where they first appeared and are located within the poem (Robertson says they were added last), they become simply material. They lose the “meaning” that comes from their original context and become narrative building blocks. The blank line (normally) before each one visually emphasizes this function as foundation, although, ironically, they are foundations that destabilize meaning as much as support it. The third is that the time indicators are a kind of ornament, a kind of material clothing for the sentences “culled from the notebooks.” These three different notions of “material” remain in play throughout the poem. The first emphasizes its autobiographical nature, that the material is the product of her life. The second relates to its method of composition, and the way she gathered material for the poem, while the third can be traced back to Robertson’s interest in reassessing the trajectory of poetic form from the eighteenth century to the present. If the form of “Utopia/” is spatial, it does not result from a process of spatialization that uses the idea of “stopped time” as its method of representation, but one in which, according to the geographer Doreen Massey, whose ideas I will return to later in the essay, space is “the sphere of multiplicity [. . .] and always ongoing,” and one that “can never be closed, there will always be loose ends always relations with the beyond, always potential elements of chance” (95). In her essay,”My Eighteenth Century,” Lisa Robertson explores the way in which the foregrounding of form and method, in those she calls the “originating agents” of language writing, is a gendered process, and describes spatial representation in experimental poetry in terms of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “monad.” In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin critiques the notion of historical progress, of its “progression through a homogenous empty time” (252). Rather, history becomes “time filled by the presence of the now” (252-53). For Benjamin, revolutionary consciousness involves “not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well,” a politicized process that provides a “revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past” by “blast[ing] a specific era out of the homogenous course of history.” The representation of these thoughts is the “monad,” into which they are “crystallised,” and can then be “approached” (254). A poetic consequence of this idea of time and history is the spatial poetics of language poetry, and poems that foreground the aleatory, the paratactic, and the constructivist. The figure for describing such poetry was often the map, rather than the journey; a structure in which contiguity and coincidence are structural foundations. In experimental writing of the late twentieth century, the metaphysics of meaning were combined with the metaphysics of form within spatial constructions that represented poetic moments of time, or “monads.” They were poems that, as well as being mimetic of experience, were also their own experience.
Robertson’s essay reconsiders the role of gender in this process, and the ways in which “some proliferative tropes that have acquired the taint of feminized false consciousness, insincerity, might contribute to a political imaginary which with nuanced scepticism dispenses with the need to defend oppositionally conceived limits or origins” (“My” 392). Formal experiments in poetry often claim to provide a more authentic relationship between language and experience, whether through Wordsworth’s “real language of men,” the minimalist aesthetics of Poundian Imagism, procedures of asyntactical fragmentation, or the rhizomatic forms of postmodern writing. They claim to demonstrate a greater “truth” through the re- appropriation and manipulation of language, a truth concealed by the naturalization and normalization of the language surface or through its ornamentation. Their method is oppositional. Robertson’s accusation is that, important though such experiments are, and once done they cannot be undone, they are potentially reductive, “continuum blasting militarisms.”Her interest is as much in those things the “real language of men” excludes, and feminized ornament might be one, as in the new methods and processes it makes possible.
Robertson promotes a poetics in which the experimental processes and the poetic products that record them are “tropes of style dispersed among a much broader spectrum of social dictions.” This repositioning of experimental processes within a longer historical trajectory takes Robertson back to a “pre-romantic eighteenth century, where the aesthetics of origins were complicated by the practice of scepticism, dissimulation, duplicity, wit” (“My” 392). Drawing on Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performative, and the way in which it is “an active processual identification produced and constantly modified by its social practice,” provides Robertson with a sense of identity, which allows her to operate within and between the procedures of experimentalism that seek to remove the self, and the essentialized voices of foundationalist poetics. The consequence is “multiple affective identificatory sites, emotive spaces that frame knowledges for only the duration of our mimetic contracts.” Rather than poetic processes that critique essentialist ideas of identity through the paratactic and the aleatory, she demonstrates that identities are revealed as “unnatural, available, mercurial” (393). In other words, you don’t write your “self” out of the poem through formal experimentation, but rather demonstrate that the “self” is impossible except for the briefest and most fragmentary moments. Through placing the contemporary poetics of experimentation and their precursors in the “Pound tradition,” within a longer historical trajectory, and in particular in reconsidering the role of a “preromantic eighteenth century” in the politics of identity and authenticity, Robertson is able to combine the flickering effect of contemporary consciousness and semiotic overload within suggestions of narrative, and the arbitrary juxtapositions of a spatial aesthetics with a conceptual map.
In the “prequel,” a short poem that appears in the book just after “Utopia/” called “This is the beginning of Utopia / Its material is time” (Rousseau’s 37-39), she discusses the difficulties of knowing oneself and, by extension, the poem “Utopia/.” The poem begins:
And if I become unintelligible to myself
Because of having refused to believe
I transcribe a substitution
Like the accidental folds of a scarf. (39)
The first line deliberately sets a distance between “I” and “myself,” separated as they are by the word “unintelligible.” The suggestion is that there are times when “she” becomes unintelligible to “herself,” when she cannot understand either the speaking/ writing self or the self that is being written. Her answer is to visualize the self as a series of temporary substitutions, substitutions for the “real thing” she cannot or will not believe in, connected in complex ways like the “folds of a scarf,” folds that are not formed from design, but are “accidental.” A metaphorical connection emerges between the “mercurial” idea of self and clothes that construct that self, and the poem and the style that “clothes” the poem. Robertson is looking back to a pre- romantic notion of the “ornamental conception of poetic style” (Marks 55). Emerson Marks, in his study of poetic diction, Taming the Chaos, refers to the way in which “till the dawn of Romanticism, writers continued to regard the characteristics of verse as raiment adorning the ‘body’ of a poet’s thought” (55). These characteristics- meter, syntactical deviation, imagery, rhyme, onomatopoeia, and alliteration-were the ornaments that clothed the poem. Yet the shifting “I” of Robertson’s poems becomes unintelligible to “myself / because of having refused a style.” There is not a body but bodies, revealed with each “accidental” or “negligent” fall of a scarf. The poem has clothes in it rather than on it, and they are clothes worn by negligence or accident, rather than constructed for effect. Robertson is simultaneously reclaiming the notion of ornament and denying any idea of an essential identity or inner meaning clothed by that ornament. She is also and implicitly critiquing, as exclusively masculine in construction, the Wordsworthian idea of a language purified of ornament. Robertson’s imaginary is a figure for whom identity is “active” and “processual,” and which is “produced and constantly modified by its social practice” (“My” 393). For Robertson, there is no qualitative distinction between a historical materialism and the identification of a style, rather the style is part of the history, the accidental fold of the scarf as much part of the identity of the figure as the skin and bone over which it is folded. She is not, therefore, adopting a style or using a process with any anticipation of better representing the real, or the now, or even to reveal the “truth” that lies behind the “untruths” of normalized syntax, but is shifting shape in a poem in which “language is a theatre” (392).
In many ways, Rousseau’s Boat can be seen to further develop Robertson’s interest in urban space and her architectural concerns in Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture, the materialist and visual poetics of Debbie, and the interest in the idea of pastoral space in Xeclogue. Stephen Collis, in his essay on the role of the “architectural” in the work of Robert Duncan, Ronald Johnson, and Lisa Robertson, refers to the way in which “Robertson’s work explores the ornamental and emblematic as pure surface” (155) and how she “turns the containing surface into the feminine subject of her writing, freeing the interior by focussing on the material out of which space is made, rather than the space itself” (157). Robertson’s interest in the surface is not one that ignores the idea of depth or interior, in the same way that the spatial distribution of material in Rousseau’s Boat does not ignore its origins in time. What she is contesting is the essentialist nature of the body of the work (poem or building), dressed in ornamental clothing that is in some ways superfluous or unnecessary. In a recently published essay, “Spatial Synthetics,” she refers to the way in which “surface effects were not subordinated to deeper structural ideals, rather structure partly extroverted to itself became a component in the ornamental grammar of the surface.” The relation between inner and outer is not so much confused as integrated. Just as the idea of identity becomes “unnatural, available, mercurial,” so too does the idea of an “inner meaning,” as expressed by a surface that “poses a rhetorical index even while temporal contingency renders it partly unaccountable” (“Spatial”). While emphasizing the spatial characteristics of the poetry, and the poetics that inform it, provides one way of reading a poem like “Utopia/,” Robertson is also contesting assumed relationships between process of representation and processes of spatialization. She is not simply concerned with creating an opaque linguistic surface, albeit one with ornamentation, but is also producing work that relates to the material conditions of everyday life. The resistance to reduction of “Utopia/,” a resistance that arises from the complexity and ambiguity of its positions, means that the language material in the poem is more than simply a carrier for the idea that preceded it. I want to locate Robertson’s procedures and concerns within aspects of the “spatial turn” in social and cultural theory, in order to demonstrate how her radical reworking of relationships between time and place can also be read in contexts other than that of poetic and literary form. The ideas of Henri Lefebvre and Doreen Massey in particular provide a social analogy for her text-based work, help to explore the ways in which ideas of the spatial are an important element in Robertson’s formal and material concerns, and demonstrate the ways these are developed in the experimental lyricism of Rousseau’s Boat.
The “spatial turn” in social and cultural theory is well described by a number of writers on “postmodernism.”David Harvey, in The Condition of Postmodernity, explored the impact of space-time compression. Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism developed the idea of cognitive mapping in order to explain how a sense of agency might be reintroduced into an environment in which semiotic overload was the norm. Doreen Massey and Derek Gregory, both working in the discipline of human geography, locate geographical spatial studies within broader theoretical concerns, and force an engagement with structuralism and post-structuralism. Deleuze and Guattari engage with the spatial in a number of ways; concepts of the nomadic and the rhizomatic are central to their theoretical speculations, and distinctions between smooth and striated spaces important in their descriptions of the impact of a global capitalism. Michel Foucault explored the idea of surveillance, drawing on the notion of the panopticon, and his distinctions between “disciplinary” and “sovereign” power are essentially spatial in the ways they reconfigure relationships of political power and social control between centre and margin. The reasons for an increasing interest in space and the spatial in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are too many and too complex to be fully explored in this essay, but they include the increased visibility of information and communication technologies that support processes of globalization, rapid movements of international capital, and an increasingly mobile global population (whether through choice or circumstance). One consequence has been an increased anxiety about ideas of identity in the wake of changes in relationships between place, language, and nationality, and an increased focus on the politics of gender and sexuality in relation to the “place” of the body. These concerns are central to Robertson’s poetry and are explored in Rousseau’s Boat.
I draw on ideas from the work of two theorists in order to explain more fully the ways in which Robertson’s work, while literary and aesthetic in many of its references, intersects with broader philosophical and social concepts. Henri Lefebvre, in The Production of Space, explored spatial practices that link “representations of space” (maps, diagrams, abstractions of all kinds) with the lived and embodied experience of what he termed “representational space.” For Lefebvre, space is produced by social and cultural processes, rather than being a container within which events occur. Lefebvre’s motivation to understand this process of the “production of space” is a political one; he wants to develop ways of “reading” space in order to discover how its control, although naturalized to the point of invisibility, is the result of political and colonial forces, and an implicit part of capitalist processes of production. The mistake, he says, is to see space as a “container of a virtually neutral kind, designed simply to receive whatever is poured into it” (94).
For Lefebvre, an understanding of space is not an abstract form of knowledge that can be divorced from the experience of everyday life, and the first part of The Production of Space is given over to a compelling argument as to why theories of space must reside within, and be informed by what he terms “spatial practice.”We know the world, he asserts, through our bodies as well as our minds, and a spatial awareness comes about from the application of both. Given that we experience (and produce) space with our bodies, Lefebvre refers to an “abyss between the mental sphere on one side and the physical and social spheres on the other” (6), an abyss that purely mental abstractions of space cannot cross. For Lefebvre, it is the body, through “the release of energy [...] [that] modifies space or generates a new space” (177) and operates within a “field” that is a “network of relations” (175). In order to illustrate the link between mind and body, Lefebvre develops the linked concepts of “spatial practice” (actions that produce space), “representations of space” (maps, diagrams, and certain types of artworks), and the embodied experience of lived and experienced representational space (38-39).Mind and body must work together to keep these concepts in play. To ignore representations of space is to ignore the “bigger picture” and lose the opportunity to theorize or generalize. Yet, to ignore representational space is to develop abstract notions and theories (including bureaucracies) that fail to connect to everyday experience.
Doreen Massey reassesses relationships between representation and space within the context of structuralism and post- structuralism.Massey describes structuralism’s process of exposing historical relationships in synchronous structures that a historical continuum otherwise concealed or naturalized; of producing “synchronic structures [. . .] devised for understanding a society, myth or language.” Although this was a process of spatialization, of producing representations that revealed new connections, the resultant concept of space, she asserts, was still that of the closed and the fixed. Structuralist representations were, for Massey, not so much “for space” as “against time.” The assumption was that, because they were “atemporal,” they must be spatial, substituting narrative, time, and the diachronic with structure, the spatial, and the synchronic (Massey 37). Structuralism, for Massey, produces structures that “rob the objects [. . .] of their inherent dynamism [. . .] eliminat[ing] any possibility of real change.” The structures are “closed,” in much the same way that a cubist collage is framed, producing relations between objects that “form a completely interlocked system” and that “rob the spatial [...] of one of its potentially disruptive characteristics: precisely its juxtaposition, its happenstance arrangement-in-relation-to-each- other of previously unconnected narratives; its openness and condition of always being made” (38). Massey develops an image of space as “the sphere of a dynamic simultaneity, constantly disconnected by new arrivals, constantly waiting to be determined (and therefore always undetermined) by the construction of new relations.” Her vision of a “slice through time” now becomes “full of holes, of disconnections, of tentative half-formed first encounters” (107).
Lefebvre refers to the “split between representations of space and representational spaces” as a “late development” and believes that art, which “takes representational spaces as its starting point [. . .] seeks to preserve or restore this lost unity” (175). The positioning or perspective of the body within space determines the space produced. “Right and left, high and low, central and peripheral [are] derived from the body in action” (174). Poetry that provides a representation of space is from a fixed perspective, or will keep coming back to that perspective. Poetry that has features of representational space will provide a variety of perspectives. The links between the poem and some external reality, whether that external reality is the person of the narrator or implied author, or some occasion or location, are various and shifting.
Robertson says, in the last line of Rousseau’s Boat, “Now I occupy the design” (39). The design is a representation of space, a completed diagram; its occupation turns it into representational space. The reader, performer, or audience “inhabits” or “embodies” the poem for its duration; the poem becomes the lived experience. To hold the poem at arm’s length, to try to “grasp” a complete picture of the poem, will be a reductive process that denies reader and audience its various possibilities. In “entering” the poem, in the same way as one enters a building, for example, the reader will simultaneously perceive it from a variety of perspectives; they will live with it, produce, and be produced by it. What they produce will not necessarily be predictable. In a poem that seeks to produce representational space, the reader/performer will make decisions about direction and speed of travel at each word in the same way that buildings can be traversed in different ways and rooms can be entered in different order. This does not mean that the reader will not also have the overall plan in her head, and the process of reading might well include checking out how her own “journey” fits into that plan as she looks for ways to make meaning out of the specifics of the event. I am claiming that, in order to read some poetry, both must be happening at the same time, and must be informing each other. There is a priority, however; the poem starts from the position of lived experience, and, for “Utopia/,” from the notebooks. Art that takes “representational space as its starting point” will, I repeat from Lefebvre, seek to “preserve or restore [the] lost unity” (175) between representations of space and representational spaces, a unity that processes of closure and commodification may seek to deny. The poetry of Robertson emphasizes representational space over abstract representations of space, and this is a direct consequence of producing a poetry that reflects the process of inhabiting lived experience, of living with things as they exist, rather than sustaining a more formal distance from the subject matter.
“Utopia/” appears to be about the most traditional of poetic topics, the factors that, through experience, contribute to the development of the person writing the poem. The final section of the poem seems to explain itself: “This is one part of the history of a girl’s mind,” but then Robertson goes on in the next but one line: “Say the mind is not a point of origin, but a skin carrying / sensation into the midst of objects” (36). There is, for Robertson, an inseparable link between mind and body. Rather than the mind gathering and ordering information, or being any kind of “origin” for the self, it becomes a skin that acts as a sensor, going out into the world, combining past and present, and real or imagined. In a further discussion of the self, body, and space in The Production of Space, Lefebvre says: “Space-my space-is first of all my body, and then it is my body’s counterpart or other, its mirror-image or shadow: it is the shifting intersection between that which touches, penetrates, threatens or benefits my body on the one hand, and all other bodies on the other” (184). The space of the individual is, therefore, already inhabited with “another”; they are selves that sustain a relationship with each other. For Lefebvre, the mirror enables the abstraction of the self from the messiness of everyday life, a process of turning “what I am into the sign of what I am,” a process of separating out “myself from myself” (185). The self in the mirror can become, however, form without content, without “bodily warmth.” In order to avoid this reductive process, Robertson shifts between self as object and self as presence and agent, between the “accidental folds of a scarf” and the “negligent fall of a scarf,” between a refusal to believe and the refusal of a style and between a representation of the self and the lived experience of representational selves. She “occup[ies] the design,” refusing an objectification of the self from the external fixed perspective of the autobiographer’s eye.
The first section of “Utopia/,” in the “spring of 1979,” demonstrates the way the poem will combine information from a variety of perspectives in a series of sentences. Just as the temporal sequencing of the sections is apparently random, the logic of the sequencing of the sentences can also be difficult to explain. If, however, rather than understanding the poem as a description of a particular place or location (geographical, logical, or emotional) that the reader must use the words to reach or understand, it is understood as a space that is produced by the reader in the act or performance of reading, then the poem produces its own logic. It begins by locating itself in time, “In the spring of 1979,” but continues in the second line to introduce the idea of a fluidity of meaning by saying “Some images have meanings and some have a change in soul, sex or century.” Meanings change according to the context. This first section of the poem goes on to describe a physical event through the detail of an urban landscape:
Rain buckles into my mouth.
If pressed to account for strangeness and resistance I can’t.
I’m speaking here for dogs and rusting ducts venting steam into rain.
I wanted to study the ground, the soft ruins of paper and the rusting things.
I discover a tenuous utopia made from steel, wooden chairs, glass, stone, metal bed frames, tapestry, bones, prosthetic legs, hair, shirt-cuffs, nylon, plaster figurines, perfume bottles and keys.
I am confusing art and decay. (21)
The narrator apparently moves through an urban waste-ground, and develops an aesthetic in which, rather than the discarded objects being unattractive detritus badly tidied away, there is a “tenuous utopia.”Yet, because I know something of the concept of the poem, I know that Robertson is not only moving through a geographical location, but also and simultaneously through “texts,” a combination of the first lines of novels that happen to be on her shelves (providing “In the spring of 1979″) and her own notebooks. The rubbish becomes a kind of art installation, but the rubbish is also the rubbish of memory, as if the decaying past is dragged into the present, and as well as exploring a particular urban space, the poem is also exploring the way images from the past reappear in her present performance of the poem. The objects described are excess or surplus, and, in the context of the poem, become ornaments that both make up the poem and the space to which the poem refers. She is explicit about her unwillingness or inability to explain “strangeness and resistance,” and about her desire to inhabit various perspectives, animate and inanimate, of “dogs and rusting ducts.”
“Utopia/” is not simply a lyric poem about the construction of the self that has been chopped up and rearranged to appear more difficult. The form allows Robertson to move about within the poem, from specific detail to generalization, from certainty to doubt, and from self to self. The utopia of childhood is only ever suggested, in “the girl who reads” and who “is already a lost girl” (21). It is a childhood that reappears where the “nightreading girls were thinking by their lamps” (22), and given a temporal perspective by the question: “Is this an interesting thing?-to be 40, female, in the year 2001?” (23). Yet these fragments should not necessarily be linked to an idea of loss, of a past that can only be glimpsed, but rather in the context of fragmentation as “self shattering, subjective and erotic dispersal” (Robertson and McCaffery). For Robertson, they exist within the “dialectic of cohesion and dispersal” (Robertson and McCaffery). Glimpses of a utopia become cause for celebration, not dismay that the total can never be achieved. There is a reflected “world with its streets, interiors, railroad stations, restaurants, sports cars and beaches” that “gains access to the surface” but “is not true, it shines from our faces.” For Robertson, it is “In the hinge between these things, a resemblance appears” (Rousseau’s 29) where the poem exists in the relationship between the material world and the body, and between representations of the world and embodied experience. Although “everything that happened was real, that summer evening” (28), it is in the difference between the actions of “behaviour” and the rules of a “game” that the “resemblance appears,” that the experience is put back together in the poem.Narrative is not a chronological sequence of events governed by cause and effect but “a picture of distances ringed in purple,”"electronic fields exempt from sentiment,” and “the patient elaboration of my senses” (29).
In “Utopia/,” Robertson wants “language to be a vulnerable and exact instrument of glass, pressures and chemicals.” It has, however, “provided us with a cry, but explains nothing” (25). The section ends with a list of the names of flowers, the arrangement finally throwing attention away from the heady descriptions to the words themselves.
Before primrose and before aconite, after snowdrop, at bluebells, during jonquil, inextinguishably for fritillaria, I stumble in and in. (25)
The reader is reminded that the materials of the poem are not images or flowers or emotions, but words. Each flower is given a “time” as if part of a sequence, yet it is not a sequence that coheres into a narrative but a structure of time that the “I” repeatedly enters, going “in and in.” Prepositions become adjectives, their functions ornamental in a style of excess. The flowers begin by suggesting they are indicators of seasons and times of the year, before sliding into a set of relationships governed by sound, and into the “frilliness” of fritillaria and its suggestion of feminized ornament. The following section has a similar ending; “For instance, to do, to be, to suffer, to bark, to like, to crumble, to sit; in each verb I’ve entertained ambition” (25). There are sudden shifts, between the action and reflection on the action, and between the situated and embodied knowledge of “to suffer” and how that knowledge might fit into larger structures, of which language is one.
Robertson is, through the time indicators, carrying out a kind of double bluff. A sentence like “It was the spring of my thirty-fifth year,” if placed within Robertson’s life history, can easily be read as autobiographical. It may, of course, be an extract from her journals, or only ever exist within “Utopia/.” I have no knowledge of the text it came from and do not need it; it is enough to read the poem as the possibility of biography and narrative. And in this section of about a dozen lines, Robertson explores her relationship with the spaces she produces; “Since there was no solitary and free space I made one with my own boredom.” Her passivity, a notion she explores further in her essay “On Palinode,” enables her to perceive that the externally “comprehensible” is only “one strand” and that “seeing is so inexperienced” (26). Seeing provides a representation from an external perspective, while Robertson is “on the inside of anything I can imagine” (27). Her ability to be on the inside and remain there within a series of contradictory positions enables her to inhabit the present within a condition of passivity, a condition she links to the internal contradictions of the “palinode.” In an apparent rewrite of Charles Olson’s line, “what does not change is the will to change,” she says of the palinode and the condition of passivity it induces, “it has to do with change, but not of the propulsive will” (“On Palinode” 26).As a consequence, in “Utopia/” she can say, “It’s not my job to worry about futurity,” and that “I wanted to distribute the present, not secure the future” (Rousseau’s 27). By occupying the design and by embodying the poem, she is able to spatialize time, yet simultaneously retain a kind of open spatiality that goes beyond the mapping processes of much “open field” poetry, to include fluid relations between time and space. “Utopia/” is, finally, despite its philosophical complexity, a strangely moving poem. The repeated time indicators at the start of each stanza give it something of the effect of an incantation, albeit one with inbuilt delay. The sentences that make up the stanzas are constructed with a sharp attention to their sound, each one satisfyingly complete in itself as well as forming part of the overall sound of the stanza. Within this poetic structure, Robertson simultaneously has the “will to counter the dominance of overarching concepts such as materiality” through the concept of a self that is “no unity, no bedrock, but the enacted site of shifting agencies and perceptions and identifications” (“My” 393).Her refusal to adopt a fixed position is not from any kind of slippery postmodernism, or from an ironic detachment, but rather to develop a sense of agency that comes from an understanding of changing ideas of space, rather than their denial. Her use of biography, of a lyric sensibility, is not from ignorance of recent developments in poetry or from a desire to challenge experimental poetics in the Pound tradition by adopting another fixed position. Rather, it comes from a desire to work with those poetics in a longer trajectory and with a fuller understanding of their gendered implications. Her passivity, her position in between places, her apparently contradictory positions and perspectives are not the result of irresponsibility, but come from the desire to be responsible to history and to histories, and to work within poetic structures that can accommodate their excess. “Utopia/” refuses a final occasion or location, although drawing on both, and neither accepts nor negates a fixed viewpoint, but rather demonstrates that it is impossible. It is a poem in which the material might be time, but form is spatial and where, “At the periphery of the overgrown clearing” there is “the skeleton of a reading chair, decaying beneath plastic” (Rousseau’s 36).
Benjamin,Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Pimlico, 1999.
Clover, Joshua. “The Adventures of Lisa Robertson in the Space of Flows.” Chicago Review 51.4, 52.1 (2006): 77-81.
Collis, Stephen. “The Frayed Trope of Rome.”Mosaic 35.4 (2002): 143-162.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Athlone, 1988.
Fierle-Hedrick, Kai. “Lifted: An Interview with Lisa Robertson.” Chicago Review 51.4, 52.1 (2006): 38-54.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Marks, Emerson. Taming the Chaos. Detroit, MI:Wayne State UP, 1998.
Massey, Doreen. For Space. London: Sage, 2005.
Robertson, Lisa.”My Eighteenth Century.” Assembling Alternatives. Ed. Romana Huk.Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003. 389-97.
_____ . “On Palinode.” Chicago Review 51:4, 52:1 (2006), 26-27.
_____ . Rousseau’s Boat. Vancouver: Nomados, 2004.
_____ . “Spatial Synthetics.” 2006
_____ . The Weather. London: Reality Street Editions, 2001.
Robertson, Lisa and Steve McCaffery. “Philly Talks 17 Oct 3 2000.” 2000
IAN DAVIDSON is both poet and critic. His most recent collection of poetry is As if Only (Shearsman, 2007). A critical monograph, Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry, was published by Palgrave in 2007. He teaches literature and writing at the University of Wales, Bangor.
Copyright MOSAIC Dec 2007
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